Looking for a photo-editing alternative to Adobe's Lightroom CC that won't break the bank? Today, I test-drive Alien Skin's new Exposure X4 editing suite for the first time.
Every photographer is familiar with Adobe's Photoshop and Lightroom software. Over the course of 20+ years, it has firmly secured its place as the industry standard for editing and culling photos and processing raw files. For years, these two programs were offered as standalone products that any photographer could buy once and use for years without the need to update. All of this changed back in 2013, when Adobe shocked the photography community by announcing they would end their standalone software and transition the entire Adobe software catalog to a subscription service called Creative Cloud.
As I write this article, you can currently subscribe to both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for $9.99 a month. While spending $120 a year might not seem like a big investment for professional photographers who depend on this software day in and day out, what if you are a semiprofessional photographer or an amateur photographer who only edits photos a few times a month? What other alternatives are there if you don't want to sign up for the software subscription model? The short answer is there are only a few full editing suites available. The second most popular raw processor is probably Capture One, but at $299, you would get a full 2 1/2 years of Adobe's software before paying off the license-free Capture One software. The other player in this space is Darktable. This open source software is free to download and does run on Linux (if you care about that), but also has a much higher learning curve than the other options. For the sake of this article and video, I'm only comparing Lightroom and Exposure, because they are the same price (for Lightroom 6's perpetual license) and have the most similar user interface.
I think I speak for a lot of photographers when I say the biggest hurdle when changing camera brands, lighting systems, or software suites is minimizing the learning curve. I've been a user of Alien Skin's Exposure Plugin for Photoshop for about 10 years now, and I am super familiar with their massive library of film stock emulators and tonal filters. If you've never used Exposure within Lightroom or Photoshop, I highly recommend downloading a trial copy and seeing how useful these filters can be in your existing workflow. When it was time for me to open the full standalone version of Exposure X4, I wasn't sure how easy it would be editing a raw file from the beginning compared to Lightroom or Photoshop's Camera Raw Engine.
What I immediately noticed upon opening Exposure X4 was that it looked almost identical to Lightroom CC. It was shockingly similar! All of the windows, panels, sliders, and organizing labels were almost identical. This made the first 30 minutes of using the software super easy with little frustration. Unlike Lightroom, Exposure X4 loads your previews much more quickly, without the need of importing every single file. It's almost like using Photo Mechanic. Now that I've used Exposure on a few different machines, it also seems to be faster at processing my files than Lightroom, which has been notoriously slow despite how much hardware and resources your computer has on tap. I've yet to edit a full wedding on Exposure, but I have total confidence saying it would cut down the edit time by at least 10 percent if not more.
I admittedly have a lot still to learn and discover in Exposure, but my initial response is this software makes the transition away from Lightroom about as easy as you could imagine. Whether it converts raw files better than Capture One or even Darktable is up for debate, but it is certainly easier to use immediately after an installation if you are familiar with Lightroom.
Alien Skin first appeared on my radar back in 2008 when I was looking for a way to give my wedding photos a unique final process. The software has come a long way over the years, but at the heart of Exposure is a massive set of film and video filters that can instantly give your photos a specific look with the click of a button. Some of these filters include black and white films like Agfa APX, Kodak T-Max, and Polapan. If you want to make your photos look like classic color and slide film, you have dozens of presets for Fuji FP, Fuji Velvia, and Kodak Portra. There are also tons of other effects like infrared film stock, Lo-Fi films, cross processing, color fading, and cinema effects.
These are all highly customizable and can easily be used to batch process thousands of photos or fine-tuned for your final selects. Of course, Lightroom has some presets built into their software as well, but they are much, much more general and of course accessible to everyone who uses Lightroom. That being said, you can download thousands of presets for free online and import them into Lightroom, but if you want a one-stop shop for quality film presets bundled all in one piece of software, Alien Skin's Exposure is definitely the overall winner here.
One thing that always frustrated me with Lightroom was that I could not apply effects and edits on different layers. Instead, I still had to rely on Photoshop to tweak specific parts of an image, blend multiple exposures, and maintain a well-organized, nondestructive workflow. Now that Exposure has introduced a layers panel, you almost get the best of both worlds with Lightroom and Photoshop all in one piece of software. I say "almost" because the implementation of layers in Exposure is still a little clunky and requires a bit of muscle memory to master the process, but overall, it is a feature I think will help distinguish it from other similar editing suites.
Unlike Lightroom that requires you to add gradients, masks, and retouching all to one single file, Exposure offers the ability to create different masks for each of these edits. Not only does this make it much easier to control each step of your edit in a versatile way, but it also helps you stay organized when revisiting files and tweaking nondestructive edits. I do wish Exposure would eventually allow you to align and blend multiple images all within one piece of software, but for the time being, having any sort of layer support within a raw editing suite is pretty exciting.
Raw Conversion Quality
Perhaps the most important element of any raw processing software is the overall rendering quality. As you know, every single piece of software interprets the proprietary raw information differently. Sometimes, one piece of software does better with shadow recovery and highlight suppression, while another gives you much more realistic colors. I have used Lightroom, Photoshop, CaptureOne, and now Exposure, and I have to say, each one of these pieces of software does render raw files a bit differently (Photoshop and LR are almost identical these days). Over the years, the gap between the final renders has narrowed significantly, and one could argue that the differences are as close to splitting hairs as possible, but they are indeed different.
I wound up editing a handful of images in Exposure and Lightroom side by side and found that generally, Exposure did give me a little more latitude in the shadows and highlights (though not always), and the sharpening settings were fairly different too. With each photo, I was able to get the two images looking 98 percent identical. You might view this as Exposure not being much better or worse than Adobe's Raw Converter, but I see it as a big win for any software facing off against the industry standard. Overall, I can't say I see either editor as being definitely better than the other, but it is nice knowing you won't lose out on quality regardless of what option you choose.
Even though I have been a fan of Alien Skin's Exposure plugin for Photoshop, I was more than a little skeptical when it came to using their all-in-one software for my initial raw edits. I have been using Lightroom as my sole raw editing software since Lightroom 1, and the thought of replacing it with another piece of software (even the highly praised Capture One) has always filled me with anxiety. I started my career as a wedding photographer and had to edit dozens of full weddings each year. Lightroom, although super slow at times, was the industry standard for culling, flagging, and editing thousands of raw files shot throughout an event or wedding. Up until a few years ago, there really wasn't another option available that offered all the features that Lightroom offers.
Now that Adobe has completely transitioned into the software leasing model, it's no shock that software alternatives like Capture One and Exposure X4 are becoming more popular among photographers. Since I already subscribe to Adobe's Creative Cloud for Photoshop and Premiere, I doubt that I'll completely abandon Lightroom altogether. However, since I have multiple computers and Adobe is very strict on how many instances their software can run across multiple machines, I can easily see Exposure becoming the main editing suite on my travel laptop. I will, of course, continue to use the Alien Skin Exposure X4 plugin for Photoshop for my final edits. If you, however, have not committed to any raw editing software, or if you are looking to pull back from some of your monthly subscriptions, Exposure X4 is about as perfect of a Lightroom replacement as you could find. In fact, it might actually be better than Lightroom! My suggestion is to download a free 30-day trial of Exposure and see if it meets your own photo editing needs.
Download a free 30-day trial of Alien Skin's Exposure X4 here and be sure to use the discount code "Fstoppers" to save 10 percent off your purchase of the full editing suite.